Picturebooks in ELT

Passionate about picturebooks

Welcome to my blog about picturebooks in ELT.

“A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page.” (Barbara Bader 1976:1)

My intention is to discuss picturebooks, in particular the pictures in them! Why? Because, in ELT we tend to select picturebooks because they contain words our students might know. I plan to write something a couple of times a month, sharing what I discover in my readings; describe new titles I come across; discuss particular illustrators and their styles and generally promote the picture in picturebooks.

From January 2008 to December 2011 I benefitted from a PhD research grant from FCT, in Portugal.

Friday, September 28, 2012

September Carnival of Children's Literature

What an exciting adventure, my first ever hosting of the Kidlitosphere carnival of literature... really enjoyed reading all the posts, thank you so much to those of you who participated.  I hope everyone enjoys browsing and discovering books, blogs, and bloggers they didn't know were out there.  

Early Literacy

Stacey at Stacey Loscalzo writes briefly, but enthusiastically about Oh No! by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann.  She says that, despite an uninteresting cover, it’s a great picturebook, with great rhyme which begs rereading and lots of opportunities for prediction.  It’s on my to buy list Stacey!
Julie at Instantly Interruptible tells us about The Insomniacs, by Karina Wolf and Illustrated by The Brothers Hilts.  She writes that it is “so unusual that [she’s] not sure what to think about it.”  It’s a great description, including information about both the visual and verbal narratives. Greatly looking forward to devouring it myself Julie, thanks for such a motivating post.

Darshana at Flowering Minds reviews Piggies in a Pumpkin Patch by Mary Peterson and Jennifer Rofe. A picturebook that delights in the fun little piglets have as they rush around  a farm yard.  Darshana gives us links to activity sheets, colouring pages and rhyming songs as well as highlighting how the peritextual features of the picturebook contribute to the narrative.  Great post, thank you.

Fiction - Picturebooks

Pat at Read Write, Repeat takes a look at the similarities between writing a good pop song and good picturebook!  Very different approach to looking at something I treat with such reverence, but Pat makes some good (and entertaining) points and I love her ending… Thanks Pat (and I’ve also just ordered Cloe and the lion!).

Jen at Jen Robinson's book page tells us about the perfect a board book for toddlers at fall, Duck and Goose, find a pumpkin, by Tad Hills.  She not only gives us her opinion of the book but shares some of her daughter’s responses, which are always a nice addition to any review. Thanks Jen!

Susan at The Book Chook reviews Florentine and Pig Have a Very Lovely Picnic was written by Eva Katzler and  illustrated by Jess Mikhail. Susan highlights how the author “encourages kids to explore the joy of making things, and of getting messy with it.” As well as applauding the recipes and a craft activities to facilitate follow up activities with parents. I also appreciated Susan’s note about the illustrator’s style, often overlooked when reviewing picturebooks, “The colours, patterns, details and borders are a real visual feast, providing so many opportunities for discovery and re-discovery.” Great review Susana, thanks!

Sandie at Picturebooks in ELT shares one of her favourite picturebooks by Lane Smith, Grandpa Green.  Sandie writes, "Deep sigh ...  such a visually stimulating picturebook - it's been hailed as "lush and masterful" with "whimsical" illustrations.  It is all of this and more.  The words are minimal, saying just enough and the illustrations take us on our own personal journeys; our adult interpretations become parallel creations alongside those of grandpa's." A truely lovely picturebook, do check it out if you haven't already. 


Maeve at Yellow Brick Reads gives us a rare literary a feast in her post called Children’s literature cook off! Beginning with The Famous Five’s ginger beer and Paddington’s marmalade sandwiches and hot cocoa she moves through stories we all know and love to compendiums of fairy food. Amazing… she even discovered that Nigella Lawson was into fairy food!  Well done, Maeve!

Jennifer at Jean Little Library reviews a sequel in the Books of Elsewhere series, Spellbound by Jaqueline West.  She writes an honest review, openly admitting to responding as an adult and sure that younger readers would enjoy this sequel as “The thrilling tension of the story catches the reader as tightly as the spellbook catches Olive, pulling her along to an exciting conclusion.”

Gail at Original Content  takes us on a trip to the country, a post for those of you who are Anne of Green Gables fans recounts a trip to The Lucy Maud Montgomery Museum, (photo on the left), which she has discovered is up for sale. Based on her travel journal notes from the visit, Gail describes the museum and its surrounds. Cool post Gail, and love the original photos, thanks!

Jeanette at Speak Well Read Well describes her post like this, “This month we passed the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 and my thoughts turned back to that infamous day. The resulting racial tensions inspired me to write a story about friendship and understanding between cultures. My hope is that children (and all of us) can look beyond race and religion to see the possibilities for friendships.” The rope of friendship is Jeanette’s story. Thanks for sharing Jeanette.


Renée at No Water River shares her first poem of September, "Apple Pie with Synonym”.  Nice play with words there Renée. We are treated to Renée performing her poem and a nice list of activities including playing with words, cooking, arts and crafts and further reading.  Interesting, thanks Renée!

Anastasia at Book Talking minimally shares a poetry book by one of her former students, A leaf can be …  by Laura Purdie Salas and illustrated by Violeta Dabija.  Perfect for Autumn, I checked it out on Amazon and many of the reviews there highlight how beautiful the illustrations are, which sent me whizzing to the “Add to cart” button!

April at Teaching Authors shares a poem and the background to the poem.  A poem prompted by making a decision, a poem about changing sheets – brilliant April, thanks for sharing.  


Lisa at Shelf-employed writes about The Giant and how he humbugged America by Jim Murphy.   A non-fiction book about a giant swindle in 1869, which she describes as “Entertaining and impossible to put down, readers will be both impressed and appalled by the complex maneuvers of the hoax's mastermind. […] What better way to teach critical thinking than to pore through the anatomy of one of America's most famous hoaxes! ”  I love it when someone is so evidently impressed by a book.  Thanks Lisa.

Margo at the Fourth Musketeer, reviews The Amazing Harry Kellar: Great American Magician, by Gail Jarrow, a new biography for young people of a famous American magician of yesteryear, Harry Kellar, largely forgotten except by those in the magic community. Margo writes, “It's a fascinating tale for anyone interested in magic or the performing arts, and beautifully designed to catch the eye of young readers. It's a terrific book for leisure reading for young people who prefer nonfiction, and also provides plenty of facts for school biography reports.”  Thanks Margo, great review!

Interviews and guest bloggers

Zoe at Playing by the book, moves over for a guest blogger, Alexandra Strick, specialist in the field of children’s books and disability.  Her post is eye-opening and talks about how books can help to build on children’s increased awareness of disability following on from the Paralympics. Lots of tips for titles at a wide range of reading levels, from picturebooks to young adult novels as well as a good list of websites to look through.  She writes, “I hope by exposing children to a range of really good inclusive books, we can help sustain the positive ‘Paralympic effect’ whilst also developing a better understanding of disability issues, and from an early age.”  Great post, thanks to Zoe and to Alexandra.

Mary Ann at Great Kid Books inerviewed graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier – She describes her post, “Several tween girls helped me develop these questions for Raina Telgemeier about her newest graphic novel DRAMA. These girls all loved, loved, loved SMILE and asked such honest, heartfelt questions. Raina's answers are full of life and honesty, shedding light on her passion as a creative artist and storyteller.”  Great post Mary and an author illustrator I’m not familiar with - enjoyed checking out her website and activities.

Amy at Delightful Children’s Books interviews Melissa Sweet, author and illustrator of Balloons over Broadway.  Amy’s interview attempts to understand how Melissa became interested in Tony Sarg, an American puppeteer, who designed the first balloon puppets that float in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  This was a lesson in American culture for me – I had not heard of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade let alone Tony Sarg!  It was also an introduction to a fascinating author illustrator.   Many thanks Amy, really enjoyed your post. 

October's Carnival will be held at Brimful Curiosities

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Remembering Grandpa

Front cover
One of the 2012 Caldecott Honour winners, this is a beautiful picturebook.  I've pulled it from my shelf and turned the pages many a time,, finally I'm writing about it!  I featured Lane Smith's It's a book in October 2012: he's a magical picturebook creator for this, his latest picturebook, is something quite different. It's a book about the past, about memories and a world that no longer exists and it's so different visually.  We could possibly question its suitability in an ELT classroom. I hope that my post will convince you it is worthy a place on the ELT book shelf. 
The front cover illustration shows us a child and an old man separated by an elephant cut from a bush, a feat of topiary skill. These are the elements of the story, a child, his grandfather and his grandfather's life story.  
Back cover
The back cover is a continuous hedge, Granpa can just be seen keeping it trim and his grandson boldly tugging a cart with gardening stuff ... later in the picturebook we will see this hedge from a slightly different view. 

The endpapers are a deep green, plain and solid. The title page is a closeup of the elephant bush, highlighting the name of the man this story is about "Grandpa Green".

Title page
We begin with a hedge in the shape of a baby, a twig juts out from behind, just as a baby's curl would.  This is Grandpa Green for "He was born a really long time ago, ..."
Opening 1
"... before computers or cell phones or television." So that must have been a long time ago! A green rabbit peers at us in recto, guarding the tunnel of trees, which beckons us into the rest of the book. The following spreads show and tell us about Grandpa's life:  each episode is depicted by a neatly trimmed bush.  As well as the cleverly created bushes, the young boy, who could be the grandson, collects forgotten and dropped gardening tools as he tells grandpa's story. 
There's a lovely connection between what the words are telling us and the pictures show us, with beautifully cut bushes highlighting bits of his grandpa's story. 
We are told grandpa "... grew upon a farm with pigs and corn and carrots ..." and the garden scene shows a carrot-shaped bush, being nibbled by rabbits. 
Opening 3
But there were also eggs, as we can see in opening 3, and "... he got chicken pox." Can you see the red berries on the bush? The grandson has collected a trowel, a garden glove and he has just noticed the pan and brush.   Just as all children who get sick, grandpa had to stay at home and he read stories, the illustrations show us characters from The Wizard of Oz and The little engine that could
As grandpa gets older, he discovered girls ... and grandson, just like grandpa, steals a kiss from the girl-like bush. 
Opening 5
As the boy blissfully blows on a dandelion clock, we are told grandpa wanted to study horticulture, but upon the page turn we see he went to war instead: there's a cannon-shaped bush with a fire-like branch protruding from it and a delicate cannonball hanging dead center of the recto page.  A plane and a parachutist sit beautifully clipped on the gnarled tree, and red-leaved plants re-create the splashes of bombs going off.  The grandson picks up grandpa's fallen glasses.  
Opening 6
Blissfully looking at the bush snipped into a voluptuous woman, the boy tells us that grandpa "... met his future wife in a little café."   It is the illustrations that tell us where this café was, and we can see grandpa's unfinished tea on the tree trunk table. 
Opening 7
This is one of my favourite spreads, where we are told that, "They had many happy years together and never, ever fought." The boy walks past an immaculately cut maze, with a flowering heart-shaped bush in its centre.  As adults who have lived, or not, through long partnerships, we can nod at the visual representation of the difficulties encountered in finding and keeping love.  I wonder if they travelled to the pyramids, shown there in the verso?  
They did have plenty of children, and of course "way more grandkids, and a great-grandkid, me."  This spread is a mass of boy shaped bushes all waving out at the reader. Thus we come to realize that Grandpa is in fact a great-grandpa - to have fought in the war, he must have been I suppose. 
Opening 9
"Grandpa used to remember everything." But,  "Now he's pretty old..." The delicate yet sturdy tree depicts all the seasons, or maybe the stages of man, from green buds through shoots to open leaves which slowly turn from green to brown and gradually drop from the spindly branches leaving those in recto almost leafless - the very last stage of life.  The boy watches a leaf fall as he swings on one of those branches, strong enough to hold him, just as grandpa seems, even in old age. In the background we can make out the shadow of an elephant.  Could it be the elephant we saw on the front cover? 
Indeed it is, for on the front cover, grandpa was snipping away at the bush, wearing his hat...
Opening 10
That hat, grandpa's "favourite floppy straw hat" is sitting on the elephant's head, the last of the gardening tools and objects the boy must collect and return to his grandpa. Triumphantly pulling the garden cart, full of gardening tools, the young boy finds grandpa, hatless and still trimming his garden bushes.  Grandpa may be forgetful, "but the important stuff ..." We turn the page to a double spread of deep green bush, and we can just make out "... the garden remembers for him." The green bush opens out to a quadruple spread ...
Opening 12
... and we see grandpa's life in front of us, cut into the garden, there for all the world to see and for grandpa and his family to remember. It's an absorbing collection for, even though we have skimmed through grandpa's life, we can revisit what he has done and where he has been, and smile in recollection.  Grandpa is there too, triumphant in his depiction of an active great grandson.
The last page is a quiet page, the grandson is carefully making his own way in the technique of topiary, clipping a likeness of his grandpa.  Could he be finishing the garden for a man, greatly loved, who is no longer able to, or no longer there?

Deep sigh ...  such a visually stimulating picturebook - it's been hailed as "lush and masterful" with "whimsical" illustrations.  It is all of this and more.  The words are minimal, saying just enough and the illustrations take us on our own personal journeys; our adult interpretations become parallel creations alongside those of grandpa's.  

I began my post questioning the suitability of such a picturebook in ELT: I am convinced of its appropriateness in any classroom of primary or young teenage learners. Understanding old age and recognizing the achievements of our older family members is such an important part of growing up.  Learning about other times and places, and piecing together the puzzles of our own individual heritage is as important as knowing, and being in, the here and now.  This picturebook can be used to motivate children to talk, and listen, to their own grandparents and great grandparents, to write and possibly draw their histories and share them proudly in class for all the world to see.  

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The irony of Matilda's cat

Front cover

I waited anxiously for Emily Gravett's most recent picturebook.  She's one of my favourite, favourite picturebook creators and she was creating a book about cats ... I'm a cat lover, so that made her even more wonderful (actually I also love dogs, so she's already satisfied my canine wishes with Dogs)... and here it is, Matilda's Cat ... fresh off the press, it's been out for less than a month.  Delightful, and very preschool, but there's an ironic humour in there which will keep us teachers giggling to ourselves, and possibly also get picked up by the children - so much to look at and discover and make connections with and between. Those of you who are familiar with Sendak's Where the wild things are, are sure to make the visual connection between our girl protagonist in a cat suit and Max in his wolf suit. 
Gravett's front covers are all fairy similar in format, especially those for preschool aged readers: a pale background with the main characters appearing large as life.   Matilda's Cat is no exception - we are shown a girl child in a cat suit holding a cat - a grinning cat at that!  They are both ginger cats, that is the cat suit is ginger and the cat is ginger.  This is  important for we can question right from the start whether Matilda's cat is her cat persona or her ginger tabby. 
Back cover
It is the back cover that answers our question - an arrow points to the real cat, who is doing the best of cat things, sharpening his claws.  Is it a he or a she cat?  I kind of think it's a she cat, her pouchy belly is just like my cat Sooty, who's a well to do four-year-old kitty. I just love Matilda's cat's stripes, and that lovely twirly bit on her haunches. 
In true Gravett style, the picturebook peritext is used to the full.  the endpapers are a pale duck-egg-blue ...
Front endpapers
... cat prints take us from verso to recto and we see the ginger feline leaving the page, her head appears as we turn into the copyright and title page spread. She's looking distinctly worried as she looks across at Matilda who is enthusiastically completing a drawing of her lovely six-legged cat.  
Copyright and title pages
The title font, as on the font cover is in freehand and it continues throughout the picturebook ... if you haven't connected the visual of Matilda in her cat suit with Max in his wolf suit then I'm very disappointed... the pointy ears and the rectangular clawed feet along with a dangerously long tail - there are no whiskers or buttons, but this is Max reincarnated, and not matter how hard I try, I can't rid the visual connection.  
Opening 1
The following spreads show Matilda, in her cat persona, doing what she thinks cats do: her happy declaration, "Matilda's cat likes ..." followed by a fun activity that most cats do like leads us through the visuals.  "... playing with wool", is one of my cat's favourite playtimes, but Matilda's ginger tabby is terrified.  Matilda was enjoying herself greatly!  I like the cats on the wool - you'll notice they are like the orange cat illustration by the dedication and in fact are repeated on some of the following spreads decorating different parts of the illustration. Matilda's attempt at doing cat things come in threes (a structure which is also evident in another of her picturebooks, Wolf won't bite) - playing with wool, boxes (could this be a reference to the well loved My cat likes to hide in boxes) and riding bikes.  Her ginger tabby is either miffed or terrified (actually my cats don't like bikes either)
Opening 2
Opening 3
What's interesting about the verbal text is that as Matilda passes onto another activity, and thus through a page turn,  the previous activity remains on the next spread, but  gets crossed out.  It's peculiar: a silent acceptance by the narrator, confirming what we see in the illustrations. I've not used this picturebook with children yet, but I'm interested to see how they respond to this. 
And so Matilda moves through tea parties, funky hats and fighting foes, not once is the ginger tabby impressed.  Opening 6 is Matilda at her most Max-like marching across the recto with a sword in her hand.  And so the next set of three activities appears ... "Matilda's cat likes drawing."
Opening 7
There's a nice array of sketches showing what Matilda has done so far with her feline friend, her drawings portraying a complying cat knitting a scarf, riding on her bike, sharing a pic-nic tea, playing happily in boxes, dressing up (you see the ginger tabby is a girl cat!) and fighting real foes. 
Upon turning the page, " ...climbing trees,  and bedtime stories." (Max climbs trees in his adventure too!)
Opening 9
Matilda is buried in her book, unaware of poor ginger tabby's reaction to the chosen title (Gravett's own picturebook about dogs!) ... the looming shadow is made by Matilda's cleverly placed hand, and poor tabby is truely terrified, tail bushy and shackles up, her whiskers are frazzled in fright. 
But Matilda has had enough ...
Opening 10
As her ginger tabby sits on the offending book and licks herself back to normal, Matilda crossly lists the things that she knows her cat does not like... revisiting the spreads we have just seen and emphasizing "... OR bedtime stories."  I suspect that children will enjoy remembering the different activities and thus be challenged to remember the sequence they have shared with Matilda through the illustrations.
We turn the page and Matilda has shed her cat suit, and Ginger tabby is looking keen, we see Matilda leave the spread in her PJs, covered in black terriers and wearing dog slippers... so what does Matilda's cat like?  
Opening 12
"... MATILDA", of course! The illustration shows us a happy couple: tabby on her back, and Matilda's dog-clad-arm hugging her.  You can almost hear the purrs coming from the illustration (check out the stylised cats on her duvet).  But that's not the end ... don't ever forget Gravett's endpapers.
Back endpapers
Here they are... those cat prints leading from verso to recto and Matilda's tabby is making the most of her opportunity to get her own back on those dog slippers. 

So much to see and smile over. The verbal text accompanies the little girl, told by an invisible narrator, who describes what Matilda enjoys doing.  We, the reader, are left to claim as loudly, or as quietly, as we like, that Matilda's cat does not like any of those activities, until finally Matilda takes note and agrees with us (or did she know all along?).  It's such fun and I can't wait to share this picturebook with my preschoolers.